Sunday, 22 March 2015



45. GHOST WORLD (2001, dir. Terry Zwigoff)


I think I should post this to prove there is someone, apart from Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, that can still remember "Ghost World," and took it seriously enough to write about it in a scholarly context. This was from 5th November 2003, a little while after I received my first DVD player -  "Ghost World" was the first film I had for it.


Cinema and the "Posts"

Enid:    You know, it's not like I'm some modern punk, dickhead. It's obviously a 1977 original punk rock look. I guess Johnny Fuckface over there is too stupid to realise.
Rebecca: I didn't really get it either.
Enid:    Everyone's too stupid.

Because postmodernism is a wide-ranging subject - theories encompassed within theories, open to interpretation from a number of angles, depending on what is being analysed in conjunction with it - the following look into postmodernist theory, with relation to film, can only present some aspects of a subject which constantly demands further attention and insight. All writing on postmodernism can only serve as an introduction to the wider picture.

Ghost World is a prime example of a "postmodern film", encompassing, among other aspects, "the collapse of the distinction between high and low cultural styles and techniques" (Woods 1999: 214). Enid, the film's protagonist, is rarely seen in two consecutive sequences without a change in costume - each time, the choice of costume, which includes 1950s-style glasses, punk rock outfits and wildly colourful dresses, clashes with the small-town American town where the film takes place. 

While the above quote from Ghost World implies a particular identity that is to be asserted, the punk rock outfit, keeping in character with Enid, is discarded in the next scene, and is replaced by something else - despite the reasoning given for the outfit, it is one that is "detached from their original historical roots and have become 'floating signifiers' available for purchase by anyone" (Sobchack  1997: 115). There is a level of playfulness in Enid's outfits - even if she gives a reason for what she is wearing, its ability to be replaced by something else, with relative ease, makes it part of a wider style that is particular to Enid and her "right of representation" (Sobchack 1997: 115).

The mise-en-scène of the un-named American town where Ghost World is based mixes different signifiers into an unpredictable space for an audience - from signs for shops by a freeway, e.g. McDonalds, KFC, sporting goods and a pharmacy, to the array of different ethnic and national groups that are represented in the town (Chinese and Greek) and different persuasions (Nazi rednecks, and Devil worshippers). This diversity is an example of "the inauthenticity and theatricality of 'being American'" (Sobchack 1997: 115) - when one American customer tells a Greek shopkeeper that "this is America, learn the rules", these rules are not (and cannot be) outlined - there are no obvious representations of "an American" in the film at any time.

"Americana" is subverted in Ghost World as an example of the "simulacrum". A new diner in town, "Wowsville", is an "authentic" 1950s diner that forms part of a mini-mall, and never plays music from the 1950s. As Jean Baudrillard wrote (cited Ward 1997), nostalgia takes the place of meaning when the real is no longer what it used to be. "Wowsville" is meant to illicit a time for people, and presents it in a "fun" way that people would like to remember - the diner is reminiscent of other representations of the 1950s in films like American Graffiti (1973, US, George Lucas), which, according to Frederic Jameson, "[invents] the feel and shape of a characteristic art objects of an older period... it seeks to reawaken a sense of the past associated with those objects" (1992: 170). However, when this nostalgia is put in direct competition with the present, e.g. the hip-hop and techno music that is played in "Wowsville", the inauthenticity of the 1950s style of the diner is raised - any attempts at authenticity are false, which makes "Wowsville" a hyperreal diner.

An addition to Ghost World, marking a distance from the original comic book version, is the character of Seymour, a loner, lover of old 78rpm blues records and wearer of old-style clothing, who is befriended by Edna. However, Seymour bears an uncanny resemblance in appearance, taste, and mannerisms to the comic book artist Robert Crumb, who was the subject of Terry Zwigoff's previous major work as a director, the documentary Crumb (1992, US). The addition of Seymour marks a "self-reflexivity of technique" (1999: 214), referencing a real-life person from a previous Zwigoff film. However, both Seymour and Crumb are portrayed as people who are mindful of the history in which they have taken an interest - they both know about blues records out of a deep-rooted love of them, and not a fleeting interest, meaning that Ghost World acknowledges "a contingent and inescapably intertextual history" (Hutcheon 1997: 39). Postmodernity is upheld by one period existing in the next, but without the sense of history being lost.

A sub-plot of Ghost World concerns Enid's participation in a remedial art class - a situation which critiques the failure of the "modern project", which ushered in the "era" of postmodernism. One way of distinguishing postmodernism from modernism is as "a difference in mood or attitude, rather than a chronological difference, or a different set of aesthetic practices" (Woods 1999: 8, original emphasis). This is exemplified when Enid's cartoon-like drawings are compared to a coat-hanger sculpture - because the sculpture was about something the artist felt strongly about, while the cartoons were not made in the same vein, this is not enough for the teacher to dismiss the cartoons as "light entertainment". The film "Nearer, Farther", made and shown by the art teacher at the first class, is an example of "the search for absolute knowledge in science, technology, society, and politics" (Ward 1997: 8, original emphasis) that characterises both modernism and the teacher's aesthetic viewpoint. This is proved later when Enid shows a "found art object" of a black-faced character from a 1920s shop advertisement - as soon as the teacher is told what she wants to hear (that the picture is part of an exploration into how racism is hidden), the art becomes acceptable. The postmodern aspect of a piece of art, that it can be open to many readings in forms of existence and behaviour different from modernist works, is highlighted in stark terms.

Ghost World is a film that exists fully within a postmodern framework. The situations and characters are explored in a way that is mindful of the issues that postmodernism raise, while not agonising over them. It is a useful introduction into how postmodernist theory is translated on the screen.


* Hutcheon, L. (1997) "Postmodern Film?" in Brooker, P. & Brooker, W. (ed.) Postmodern After-Images. London: Arnold. pp. 36-42.

* Jameson, F. (1992) "Postmodernism and Consumer Society" in Brooker, P. (ed.) Modernism / Postmodernism. Harlow, Essex: Longman. pp. 163-79.

* Sobchack, V. (1997) "Postmodern Modes of Ethnicity" in Brooker, W. & Brooker, W. (ed.) Postmodern After-Images. London: Arnold. pp. 113-28.

* Ward, G. (1997) Teach Yourself Postmodernism. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

* woods, T. (1999) Beginning Postmodernism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


* American Graffiti (1973) film, dir. George Lucas. US. Universal / Lucasfilm / Coppola Company.

* Crumb (1994) film, dir. Terry Zwigoff. US. Artificial Eye / Superior.

* Ghost World (2001) film, dir. Terry Zwigoff. US/UK. Granada / United Artists.

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